This is a guest post by Dierdra Rutherford Fein
I’ve tricked my husband and I can’t even find it within myself to feel very guilty. When we were young he mentioned that he regretted not going to Hebrew school and having a bar mitzvah, nearly in the same breath he told me he didn’t think of himself as Jewish. Of course, most of the world’s Jews don’t think of him as Jewish either, with a non‐Jewish mother in the mix, but that was irrelevant in that moment and, frankly, barely relevant to me now.
I knew he was raised going to Pesach at his savta’s house and celebrating Chanukah at home with his family, but his father hadn’t really practiced his faith during his adult years and knowing that his mother made him like any other goy to most Jews left him feeling totally apart from that half of his heritage. So I decided to learn a bit about Judaism, starting with the gateway‐holiday, Chanukah. I learned the prayers the first year we were together and insisted on playing dreidel with his family. By the second year I had my own menorah and was lighting the candles. Rosh Hashanah started subtly, just apples and honey the first year, with a quick “shana tova” thrown in. I knew my husband was agnostic, and not particularly comfortable with all of the trappings of religion, but I managed to convince him that a New Year’s celebration was a fairly secular event…
Purim did it. The entire holiday is built around the miraculous survival of the Jewish people, wine, food, costumes and tomfoolery, without a mention of God in the megillah, my husband was sold. Four Purim’s later we celebrate nearly all the holidays fully and together. He’s started calling himself a Jew, first to himself, then to others, and he seems happy to have the holidays, the mezuzot, the challah and the Hebrew.
I hate to think of myself as at all manipulative, and he’s certainly not a man to be molded, which is one of the things I love most about him, but I can’t help but feel that I tricked him into a Jewish identity. I look at the state of halacha and I feel a tiny speck of guilt underneath all of my joy. Knowing that he isn’t halachically Jewish, according to anyone to the right of Reform Judaism hurts me. He could move to Israel under the Law of Return, and live there among people who look like him and never belong. When we’ve gone to synagogues and Judaica stores together, he’s the one they greet. He’s stood at Masada and he’s floated in the Dead Sea, and when my conversion is over and we are able to start a family, our children will be Jewish, but none of that is enough, because he has a goyish mother.
It’s frustrating to think about and I’ve decided, after a great deal of consideration, that the halacha, in this instance, just doesn’t matter to me. It may be that other people want to debate the point, and I do understand that, but it isn’t only an issue of legality, but one of humanity. There are human beings behind the law, families and lives that are put through the wringer. When I stand next to my husband, lighting the Shabbat candles I’m not standing next to a goy, or a “half‐Jew,” I’m standing next to a Jewish
man, who will be the father of my Jewish children. That’s enough for me.
Who is a Jew?
This is a guest post by Dierdra Rutherford Fein
My favorite answer to the question of “what is a Jew” is “it’s a job description.”
It doesn’t seem to me so much that you tricked him as that you recognized a need he was voicing, and helped him meet that need. And don’t forget, he can still have an adult bar mitzvah.
Methinks you doth protest too much.
From what you describe, your husband has made no effort to connect with the Jewish community. If he wants us to consider him Jewish, he should make an effort. If he doesn’t care, then why do you? I’m surprised you didn’t manipulate him into converting or at least studying with you. It would increase the chances of Shalom Bayit and also would increase the probability that your kids identify as Jews. Or you could affiliate with the Reformed movement in which case they already consider him Jewish. Your last paragraph, picking and choosing what you want to believe, is classic Reformed practice. I’m not judging – just recognizing.
Jacob: Why make an effort to connect with a community that doesn’t accept you? It’s important to remember that people who are not born to Jewish mothers are told, from a very young age, that they are not, in fact, Jewish. Given that kind of reaction from the Jewish community at large, it’s a bit naive to imagine that anyone in that position would be willing to put in an enormous amount of emotional and spiritual work, just to be considered a Jew.
I wouldn’t say my husband particularly cares whether or not he’s considered Jewish, he cares about the culture, but he’s Agnostic. I care, not only because it effects me and my future children, but because it effects so many other people. I care because we should take note of human suffering and emotional pain, even if it is caused by an entrenched religious ruling. I care because the question of interfaith families and their children’s assimilation at starling rates is always framed as if intermarriage were the only issue, without considering the impact of rejection on a child from an interfaith family. Would so many children from interfaith families assimilate if they were greeted as Jews and raised as such?
I didn’t “manipulate him into converting” because, quite frankly, it’s not my place to choose. How he feels, what he believes and how he chooses to honor his family is his business. Shalom bayit is a wonderful thing, but I haven’t found our home anything but peaceful despite our religious differences. I light the Shabbat candles and say the prayers for everything from challah to hanging mezuzot, I don’t need him to say them too just to be spiritually fulfilled.
As for affiliating with the Reform movement, I feel much more comfortable in the Conservative community, though I did spend time in a Reform synagogue. I may not agree with the halacha in this case, it may make me unhappy, and I may have decided to set it aside, but the mitzvot and the law are a ladder. I may not be on the rung you are on, but that doesn’t mean I’m not making the climb.
This brought me to tears. It is a shame that your husband has lost out on so much of who he is. You did not so much manipulate but suggest and he obviously felt safe enough to embrace that what was taken from him as a child. As a parent, I do what I feel is right at the time but it just goes to show – we don’t know everything. Please keep writing.
(Ms. Rutherford Fein, my apologies for taking this a bit off topic.)
Mr. Gallagher, I’m curious — where did you hear that “description?”
And what exactly do you think it means?
As a quite senior citizen, who’s seen many arrangements, I don’t see why you’re making such a fuss. I’ve met Jews of mixed religious origin and it hasn’t made any difference to them and me. Sometimes .I didn’t find out about it until they decided to tell me.
Why are you so concerned about what some religious fanatic thinks of your marriage? I think Governor Cuomo is considered a lapsed Catholic by church officials for having fought for gay marriage.
By the way, you can become converted to any branch of Judaism, including even the Haredim (ultra orthodox).
It just takes more time and effort. Often the converts become more frum (devout) than those born Jews, There are many jokes about this.
Bottomline is children, “Children are our future” remember ? The only way any community can survive is by the children continuing the culture of their parents. And its not unheard of at all for one spouse to try and “convert” the other…Its all for the kids. And most times even a hardened Atheist will give way and go to Synagogue for his children’s sake and so that his wife will be happy.
Thank you so much for writing this piece. I think your “trickery”, as you call it, came from a place of love and guidance of your husband.
I too am not considered Jewish by halacha, I was born to a Jewish father and a not Jewish mother (she is spiritual not religious, more eastern leaning). However Conservative Judaism is the only religion I have ever identified with. I didn’t attend Hebrew school or become a bat mitzvah but I attended temple with my father and we (mom included) celebrated holidays at home.
I struggle with my “not technically Jewish” label and that my future children will not be considered “Jewish”. I go back and forth on the topic of “converting” but I am still undecided. I know what I believe in and have trouble understanding why I have to “legally” label myself for others to accept me. I don’t believe that G-d (the compassionate unconditionally loving one I believe in) would judge me based on something that I had no control over (my parents).
I am disappointed in people who will look down on, dismiss, or negate my Judaism because of my birth. I remind myself that G-d is the only one who gets to judge people and that my Judaism is not theirs to label. Why do some think that the faith has to be exclusionary, is there not room in Judaism for eveyone who wants to identify? I know they always will though, because after all, we are Jews and it is what we do (debate/question)!
I hope that other “non-traditional” Jews will take some peace from this and not worry so much about the labels and just keep trying to be good human beings and practicing Jews.
Thank you again for the article and the discussion it will generate.
So many people born to a Jewish mother could care less about being Jewish. And so many more not born to a Jewish mother care deeply about being Jewish.
I’ll take the latter over the former any day.
Victoria: Parents can only do their best. I certainly place no blame on my father-in-law for not forcing his son to go to Hebrew school! That argument would have been impressive. Navigating the different levels of Jewish identity can be very difficult, even for adults. Trying to determine what a young person wants and needs culturally and spiritually is nearly impossible, let alone divining what that child will want as an adult, looking back on their youth. It’s easy to look back and say a parent should have done this or that, but I don’t think any adult would blame their parents for doing their utmost to make them happy as children.
Gerald: I appreciate your comments, and how open you seem to be to people who have Jewish ancestry through their father. Still, you have to understand that a very large number of Jews do have an objection to such people calling themselves Jews, and that is something that I feel the community needs to talk about. I’m not concerned with what those people think of my marriage, I’m happy and content, but I am concerned about the feelings and spiritual health of the children from Jewish fathers who are so often rejected by large swaths of the Jewish community. Yes, they could avoid telling anyone that their mother isn’t Jewish, but I don’t think that telling people to hide a part of their family and their cultural history is always reasonable. Why should they have to censor their lives in order to be welcomed? Really, if everyone was like you, and felt that it made no difference, I wouldn’t have ever thought to write this piece.
Jon: I agree, children are always a major concern. Assimilation is a huge problem in the Jewish community, and it has to be addressed. I don’t think that we can solve the problem of assimilation by simply saying that intermarriage needs to end, or that agnostic people, like my husband, should fake a belief in God. I am happy with my husband the way he is, culturally Jewish, celebrating all of the holidays and Shabbat with me, and still having the conviction of his own beliefs.
I wouldn’t want my husband to drag himself to synagogue simply to show a united front, and I think giving children an apathetic shul-going parent as an example can be damaging, certainly much more so than having an avowed agnostic who is comfortable in a religious household. When we are lucky enough to have children he’ll be there for the brit milah, for the bar/bat mitzvah, for the weddings and I will be there to take them to synagogue. The wonderful thing, at least from my perspective, is that they can grow up seeing that there is more than one way to be a Jew, culturally, religiously, even in the tribal sense, and that each of those ways is valid.
Anon: I’m glad this piece meant something to you, it’s great to think that I said something for you as well as my own family. I understand the feelings you have, that you shouldn’t have to convert to be seen as a Jew. That feeling has been echoed by so many people I have met, it breaks my heart. You have said that you are comfortable in Conservative Judaism, and I encourage you to keep making a place for yourself there, or elsewhere in the Jewish community.
Jeff: I’m glad you feel that way!
Or you could affiliate with the Reformed movement in which case they already consider him Jewish
This is both a completely fase and ignorant statement.
There is no “Reformed” movement and no movement that grants recogninition to just anyone (Jews for Jesus aside).
The Reform movement has a nuanced position on who is a Jews and you’d be well advised to read up on it.